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Are Guidebooks Over?

K.C. Summers

One of the quickest ways to figure out whether a new guidebook series is any good is to check out the advice for your hometown. In my case, that's Washington. So, for example, if a book's authors are still recommending the U Street corridor as the hippest nightlife scene in D.C. (the cooler members of the staff tell me that honor has passed to H Street NE and Barracks Row in Southeast), chances are they're not going to be up on the newest and most exciting developments in other cities, either.

So I was just flipping through the D.C. edition of Fodor's new "25 Best" series on various cities (others include NY, London, Paris and Barcelona). The book does an adequate job of covering the basics, but sure enough, no H Street for nightlife (they tout staid old Adams Morgan). (They also include this bit of advice: "There is no bad time to visit Washington." Guess they've never been here in August.)

Anyway, makes me wonder if travel guidebooks have become irrelevant -- outdated before they even hit the shelves -- and whether folks still rely on them, or if everyone has moved on to online forums, blogs and vox populi advice sites. If you do still use guidebooks, do you have a favorite series? I'm partial to Lonely Planet's stuff, as well as the Rough Guides, for their unvarnished, real-traveler approach. I'm not a big fan of citizen advice sites -- as I've mentioned in this space before, I find them confusing, and prefer experts with proven credentials. Still, the fact is that when I head out on the road these days, more often than not it's with a folder full of Internet printouts -- not a book.

By K.C. Summers |  April 12, 2007; 3:21 PM ET  | Category:  Guidebooks , K.C. Summers
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I always look at a couple of places I know really well such as San Francisco or New York. The information in many guidebooks seems about 25 years old. In some of the newer, hipper books, the information is about 2 years old. Most of these books are put together by one or two low-paid recent college grads who freshen the material in previous books. The Internet has the advantage of hundreds or thousands of eyes, along with the self-correcting nature of blogs. Internet sources can be biased or just plain inaccurate so you have to read them carefully. Travel books are a little more balanced but the information is as old as a Hostess Cupcake that's been on the shelf for five years.

Posted by: Rick | April 12, 2007 4:15 PM

I definitely look at publication dates and then knock off a year, which is roughly the publication cycle for guidebooks. So for things like hotels, restaurants, ticket prices/procedures, etc., I go the printout route. But for information on attractions, I like a book. (How often does historical information on the Acropolis change?) It puts all the info in one convenient, bound form, and if I stumble onto something unexpected - maybe a tiny church while out wandering - I can look it up. I can also make my own notes in the margins and then plunk the book on my bookshelf as a memento, which is handy for this indifferent diarist and non-scrapbooker.

The audience for the books is another issue. Fodor's always feels like it's aimed at, well, less adventurous travelers. Likewise, I wouldn't send my grandmother out the door with only a Rough Guide.

Posted by: BxNY | April 12, 2007 4:55 PM

I have had decent luck with guidebooks, especially Lonely Planet. The problem I find with online user forums (of all kinds, not just travel-related) is that I'm never sure of the sources -- I always wonder if positive reviews are planted by an owner or employee, and I always wonder if the negative reviews are based on an isolated incident or by someone with an axe to grind.

Guidebooks aren't always perfect, but in my experience they're usually not WAY off, and when they are, they also present other options (eg. if one recommended restaurant is gone, there's usually a list of others in the same neighbourhood). And at least I know who wrote them and why.

Posted by: jp | April 12, 2007 5:32 PM

I think it depends on where I'm going. If I'm going ot London I'll use the web more because they've got a strong presence. But if I want to travel around the British countryside then I'm more likely to turn to a guidebook. Lonely Planet always finds the quirky B&Bs and unique places that I probably wouldn't find online.

Posted by: DC | April 12, 2007 5:35 PM

I like to have a guidebook (though I usually get them from the library), because my trips don't always go according to plan, so it's nice to have something in my pack that I can pull out for new ideas.

Though I've learned the hard way that all guidebook information should be verified by phone before going on an adventure based on it.

Posted by: Julia | April 12, 2007 9:09 PM

I used two guidebooks when I went to Dublin last year and it was a good thing I did. The first was very good for things like restaurants and attractions. However, it recommended a B&B that I considered staying in until I looked in the second book and it said the area was not a place you wanted to be after dark. As a single female traveler, that is the kind of advice I needed and the first book didn't have anything on which areas were less safe and should be avoided after dark. That said, I always have a hard time finding that same information online as well.

Posted by: Dublin Traveler | April 13, 2007 10:45 AM

Dublin, what were the two guidebooks? I'm just curious.

Posted by: KC | April 13, 2007 10:50 AM

I'm with BxNY - I go to London every year, but I still carry my millenium edition D&K with me (yes, it has a whole section on the Millenium Dome). It has more detailed maps than my foldout map but more info than an A to Z. I may not crack it all trip, or I may be glued to it the first day because I'm staying in a neighbourhood I'd never really explored before. Also, it may be a few years old, but the tube map is still accurate (unlike my fold out map I'd bought a year earlier that shows the Jubilee line extension as "under construction").

But who these days relies on guidebooks for hotel and restaurant info in big cities? Guidebooks are for attractions, or so I always thought.

Posted by: MB | April 13, 2007 1:37 PM

I spent 3 months backpacking across Europe and my Let's Go guidebook was absolutely priceless. It acted as a great fallback whenever I was in a grind and needed a list of Hostels, or ideas (not to mention always having an easily accessible map). Often I planned as I was riding a train to that particular city, so it was great to have it as a reference guide to make a quick outline of sites that i wanted to see while i was there. Once in the city I was always able to meet locals and other travelers who were great sources of additional advice to refine my plans.

Posted by: Matt | April 13, 2007 1:58 PM

Sending tourists to H Street NE? Have YOU been there? I'll go to bars over there, but I'm 6'5" and 220 lbs.

Posted by: Anonymous | April 13, 2007 2:33 PM

Are you kidding? My idea of a hot time is going to the Shakespeare Theatre. But my twentysomething daughter and her friends have discovered H Street, and my two very hip colleagues, Anne and Andrea, go there too. And you can see from their pictures that they're hardly hulks....

Posted by: KC | April 13, 2007 2:43 PM

It borders on mindless brand loyalty, but I got started with Lonely Planet, and that's just what I always use. Even when they're kind of weak, they work for me. I do very little research online - like others who have posted above, I never know if posts are by someone who has an ax to grind or by an owner. And just the design of, say, tripadvisor.com - I go to a page there and it's so busy and loaded down with ads and weird quasi-ad links, it's hard to get information out of it.

That said, the internet did help a bit when I was looking for a place to stay in Scandinavia a few months ago - I poked through the city's website that listed hotels and hostels, and the pictures helped a bit.

Pointless but kind of amusing anecdote: when I spent a summer traveling in Europe with two friends, we each had one guidebook - I think they were a Let's Go Europe, a Rough Guide Italy, and a Lonely Planet Mediterranean Europe. We renamed them "Confusing Planet," "Rough Idea," and "Who Knows?" But they all got us where we needed to go.

Posted by: h3 | April 13, 2007 3:33 PM

I just got back from my third trip to Mexico, and picking up a couple of the Moon Handbooks regional guides was the best decision that I made.

I find that Lonely Planet and Moon Handbooks match my budget and travel style by listing tasteful, local-style restaurants and hotels. When available, I prefer the Moon Handbooks guides because they're better at explaining customs and the cultural significance of what I see.

Fodors and Frommers seem to be targeted towards a less adventurous, wealthier crowd than what I was looking for. On the other hand, the Rough Guide and Let's Go series target the backpacking, hostel-ing crowd.

Posted by: stuckman | April 13, 2007 8:26 PM

On the other hand, the Tripadvisor hotel search has become a vital tool when looking for hotels (you can search by both price AND rating in the same query.) Here, guidebooks are still useful to confirm what the Tripadvisor members say.

Posted by: stuckman | April 13, 2007 8:36 PM

I think for background info, the chapter at the beginning of Insight Guides are best (specifically for traveling abroad). But my favorites are the DK guides. I used their Florence and Rome guides when I was in Italy and the Istanbul guide for Turkey. The members of my tour were very jealous as I was the only one with a map of the Grand Bazaar. Their "Top 10" guides are especially great for times when you might get lost or need suggestions, but don't have room to lug a big book around. And I love that they have lots of pictures- the visuals are more important to me than having an up-to-the-minute Frommers. It's especially useful in foreign countries because they show you pictures of some of the food you might be ordering. And as an art history student, I find the cut-aways and plans of monuments and museums especially helpful.

Posted by: student traveller | April 14, 2007 3:47 PM

I've been a devotee of Let's Go guides and have used them for various European countries. However, I bought Let's Go guides for Brazil and Peru, and each was filled with inaccuracies (more than just exchange rate or prices) or missing information. I was really disappointed.

Posted by: med student traveller | April 14, 2007 8:50 PM

I am also leaning toward using the internet to cobble together my own guides. Lonely Planet is resting on its laurels. I'm finding reading travel literature more useful than travel guides.
For the backpacking type trip, a LP or Let's Go is still invaluable, but for individual countries it depends on the author, NOT the publisher. They vary wildly in quality.
I disagree that the web is a bad place to find info. It is easy to figure out who on Virtual Tourist or Thorn Tree is providing good info. I have received invaluable feedback on both forums.

Posted by: Planner | April 16, 2007 1:44 PM

Funny you should say that about Fodor's. I used to live in DC and was back for one night, and I used the Fodor's Web site (which I presume is based on their book) to recommend something I hadn't seen before. They referred us directly to H Street NW for the Spy Museum and the renovated Portrait Gallery/Museum of American Art. We went to both and were very pleased.

Posted by: OBK | April 16, 2007 2:36 PM

For a quick trip I'll print info from the net, but if I'm going to be someplace for a few weeks I will pick up a guidebook or two. I used my 1999 Costa Rica guide in 2004 and found that the important things (maps, park and museum hours) were unchanged. I like to wing it with hotels and resturants, so that's not important to me anyway (unless I get stuck). When I'm going someplace well-traveled I tend to use the Lonely Planet or Rough Guide since I get a different perspective. If I'm heading to a place I'm thoroughly unfamiliar with I'll go with the Fodors or Frommers.

Posted by: Karen | April 16, 2007 3:05 PM

KC-the two guidebooks I used were Insight Pocket Guide Dublin and AAA Spiral Guides Dublin.

Posted by: Dublin Traveler | April 16, 2007 6:18 PM

When I travel, I go with a folder full of printouts and at least 2 guidebooks (checked out from my local library, of course). Its usually Fodor's or Frommer's if I'm going to a city, or Lonely Planet or Rough Guide if its more "remote". I can understand if space in my pack is at a premium, but its a lot easier when walking around to look up something in an index that you might not have known about when you were printing stuff out.

Posted by: Laura | April 17, 2007 3:12 PM

I like your post and think that there is merit to it. You can get such great up-to-date information on websites, blogs, and such. However, I would be upset if I was a tourist and went to H Street for nightlife. It's not the safest area in the District. It has great flavor, but maybe not the best for tourists!

Posted by: dc girl | April 18, 2007 9:20 PM

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